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Science Fiction as a Tool for Social Commentary


The future and advancements in various fields have always been a matter of curiosity for people. In light of this curiosity, societies have dreamt of the great unknown and have used their imaginations to create legends, myths and superstitions as a way to understand the wonders of the universe (Tymn, 1985). Science fiction is the product of these narratives which demonstrate that “the seeds of the science fiction genre were planted thousand years ago”, as suggested by Marshall B. Tymn (1985, p. 41). Science fiction has been familiar to many people through Hollywood movies or books whose sole purpose is assumed to entertain and fascinate. However, this purpose would be too inadequate to define this vast genre as a whole. Science fiction uncovers many factors about society through the topics it covers, such as social or psychological fears, anxieties, thought patterns, expectations and many other components which are addressed through different mediums of mass media. Therefore, this article will explore how science fiction directly articulates societal fears while indirectly drawing close parallels to real-world issues.


Voicing Societal Fears

As Annette Kuhn quotes in her book Alien Zone from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine, “few things reveal so sharply as science fiction the wishes, hopes, fears, inner stresses, and tensions of an era” (1990 p. 15). Even though science fiction is generally considered to be a reflection or creation of fantasy, most science fiction films provide opportunities for social comments (1990). Throughout history, science fiction movies and books have provided us with much knowledge by directly addressing society’s outlook. This is the factor that noticeably distinguishes science fiction from other genres.


It is generally recognised that science fiction “was born in the heart of the English romantic movement with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (Tymn, 1985, p. 42). “With her gothic-horror novel Frankenstein in 1818, Shelley introduced science as the ingredient of science fiction and spread out the idea that if science is not properly managed, it might induce future threats” (Tymn, 1985, p. 42). In the novel, a man is artificially created and society turns him into a monster that endangers the people around him, displaying the consequences of improper and undisciplined use of science and not taking responsibility for such creations when something goes wrong. For this reason, Shelley's novel Frankenstein serves as an example of society's unrest about scientific and technological advancements as a result of using science irresponsibly.


Many things have changed over time but science fiction has continued to encapsulate “collective psyche of the era“ (Kuhn 1990). The movie Soylent Green (1973) can be considered as an example as it is a dystopian interpretation of potential ecological changes which has caused there to be overcrowded cities, pollution and famine. The movie takes place in 2022 in New York City where terrible famine has led the government to feed people with “soylent green”, a lab-made food. People are shown to be desperately waiting in line to reach soylent green, deprived of their basic needs, and accessing organic food has become a luxury. When we turn the focus to the era in which the movie was released, it is clear the choice of the movie’s subject was not a simple coincidence.


Figure 1. Poster of the movie Soylent Green (Solie, J., 1973).

According to the research reported by Joseph M. Viladas for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1973, the decline in the quality of air and environment was a huge source of concern within society (vi). Viladas informed the government that people are much more concerned about the environment in metropolitan areas compared to non-metropolitan areas while calling attention to the fact that people are not relieved after Congress passed the National Environment Policy Act in 1969 (1973, ix). The report illustrated that people were not only afraid of harming the environment but also had fears about urban areas with more inhabitants which demonstrated that overpopulation was regarded as an equally intimidating social issue.


At the end of the movie, the audience learns that “Soylent green is people!” (Fleischer, 1973) indicating that the soylent green produced to feed people was made of dead bodies. As stated by Rowland Hughes, if humankind continues consuming the world without any balance, individuals are going to lose the luxury of living comfortably and ultimately end up consuming themselves (2013). Soylent Green and Viladas’ report is an indicator that issues plaguing both the real world and the fantasy world of science fiction parallel to each other when it comes to reflecting and critiquing social order (Kuhn, 1990).


Translating ideologies specific to science fiction into the real world

Annette Kuhn continues her analysis of the cultural instrumentality of science-fiction and verbalizes that “sci-fi movies relate to the social order through the mediation of ideologies, society’s representations of itself in and for itself – that films speak, enact, even produce certain ideologies which cannot always be read directly off films’ surface contents” (1990, p. 10). In addition to reflecting the social order, science fiction movies are used in order to transmit views and beliefs that are detectable only after diving into the deep downs of the movie’s means, as can be seen in Ridley Scott’s 1982 released movie Blade Runner.


Figure 2. Blade Runner's visual construction of the future (Blade Runner, 1982).

Blade Runner is about artificially-made superhuman replicants who are used in off-world slave labour during the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets and they are disposed of when their mission is over. Replicants are impossible to differentiate from “real human beings” in terms of appearance. In order to understand the difference between a replicant and a biological human, they are given a test, named the Voight-Kampff empathy test, which catches unwanted motions of the cornea while making decisions. For that reason, appearance ceases to be an indication of the human race and the main indicator of humanity is left to the ability to express emotions and feelings, which is a common concept in science fiction. In Blade Runner, however, this ability is not seen as the ultimate indicator of humanity, since there are many replicants in the movie who have developed powerful emotions through contact with each other, even though they are coded otherwise (Senior, 1996). Batty, for instance, although “he is designed to be a killing machine, he surpasses his originally inhibiting nature through empathy, compassion and generosity” (Senior, 1996, p. 8). Undeniably, replicants have full control over their mind, body and emotional states.


Figure 3. A replicant crying because she is told memories that she remembers are not hers but someone else's (Blade Runner, 1982).

“Although replicants are built to be human in every way they are denied human status” (Senior, 1996) because they are viewed as disposable slaves in a technologically racist society. Blade Runner’s overtones arouse questions about the prerequisites of “the human” by attracting attention to the discriminated part who are not a good fit for the definition. “The larger question of the film which is related to genocide is the ability of the state to define the human and to destroy those who fall outside the definition” (Senior, 1996, p. 10). Blade Runner assists the audience to think about something that is generally assumed to be unnecessary; "What makes a human? Is there a concrete definition? Is biology the sole element of the human being?”


Through the allegory of replicants, Blade Runner might reflect how members of society can be discriminated against, such as through racist stereotypes, which allow people to erroneously allocate a particular trait to a specific race and apply it to everyone, categorizing them based on pre-conceived notions and use it to justify their discrimination. In that respect, Blade Runner correlates technological racism against replicants with the racism experienced in the audience's lives to highlight how generalizations can lead to the objectification and commodification of a group of people, causing them to suffer. Finding common ground between real life issues and problems encountered in a narrative through allegory demonstrates how the science fiction genre can indeed very accurately depict real world societal struggles without directly drawing attention to it.


Conclusion

In conclusion, as opposed to the popular assumption about the science fiction genre being a universe of fantasy with a fantastical setting, characters and narration, Annette Kuhn, along with many other writers, critics and film directors try to help people to scrutinize and relate to the genre with different lenses. Science fiction is a medium which is used as a tool in order to indicate the problems and issues of society (Kuhn 1990). Along with anxieties, fears, attitudes and certain ideologies embedded in society, science fiction acts as a form of contemporary metaphor, a literary device for examining the real world and human lives from another perspective (Tymn, 1985).


References

Hughes, R. (2013). The Ends of the Earth: Nature, narrative, and identity in dystopian film. Critical Survey, 25(2), 22-39. Kuhn, A. (1990). Introduction: Cultural Theory and Science Fiction Cinema'. Alien Zone. Ed. Annette Kuhn. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (1973). Soylent Green. United States. Senior, W. A. (1996). Blade Runner and cyberpunk visions of humanity. Film Criticism, 21(1), 1-12. The American People and Their Environment -- 1973: A Study of National Opinion and Attitudes about Environmental Problems and Their Solutions. Volume 1. (1973). United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyNET.exe/9101TYSJ.txt?ZyActionD=ZyDocument&Client=EPA&Index=Prior%20to%201976&Docs=&Query=&Time=&EndTime=&SearchMethod=1&TocRestrict=n&Toc=&TocEntry=&QField=&QFieldYear=&QFieldMonth=&QFieldDay=&UseQField=&IntQFieldOp=0&ExtQFieldOp=0&XmlQuery=&File=D%3A%5CZYFILES%5CINDEX%20DATA%5C70THRU75%5CTXT%5C00000025%5C9101TYSJ.txt&User=ANONYMOUS&Password=anonymous&SortMethod=h%7C-&MaximumDocuments=1&FuzzyDegree=0&ImageQuality=r75g8/r75g8/x150y150g16/i425&Display=hpfr&DefSeekPage=x&SearchBack=ZyActionL&Back=ZyActionS&BackDesc=Results%20page&MaximumPages=1&ZyEntry=1# Tymn, M. B. (1985). Science Fiction: A brief history and review of criticism. American Studies International, 23(1), 41-66. Warner Bros. (1982). Blade Runner. United States.

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Your sharing is very profound and honest, I hope to see more of your positive posts!

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Hazal Kazancı

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